Council member, Sir Roland Jackson, gave evidence on behalf of the Council to a parliamentary inquiry into GM foods and the application of the precautionary principle in Europe on 19 November. The inquiry is being conducted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee.

The Council has reported on the ethical issues of GM in three previous projects. The first report, GM crops: the ethical and social issues, was published in 1999, and a subsequent follow-up report, GM crops in developing countries, was published in 2003. In 2012, the Council published a report on Emerging biotechnologies, which covered at a range of technologies, including GM.

In April 2014, the Council submitted written evidence to the inquiry. During the evidence session, Sir Roland highlighted the following points:

• The precautionary approach
The Council challenges the application of the precautionary principle as a decision rule in risk management and regulation, which considers only one application at a time, late in the innovation process, and according to a very limited set of criteria. The Council does not object to the need for precaution in innovation – what it is concerned about is that it should be left until the last minute. Regulation is about whether something may be done within a certain rule set; it says nothing about whether it should be done, whether it’s better than the alternatives or whether it even addresses an important societal challenge. These are ethical questions, which need open and early debate, well before questions of regulation. The Council advocates a continuing precautionary approach throughout innovation rather than simply applying a precautionary principle at the final stage.

• The importance of public engagement and involvement of stakeholders
Public engagement should be a continuous process that explores diverse perspectives on the question of GM in the context of other alternatives. In regulation and innovation governance, we often hear the voice of academics and industry but not that of the rest of society. GM innovation raises social and ethical questions, not just for regulators but for wider public policy. It is important to involve wider society systematically in discussions about GM.

• Responsible research policy
The Council’s 1999 recommendation for an independent over-arching body was answered by the creation of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) in 2000. This was disbanded in 2005. However, there remains a need for coordinated and responsible research policy that must involve broad and continuing societal engagement in the development of research, innovation and governance strategies that respond to wider public values and interests.

Watch the evidence session on Parliament TV